The regency romances, p.68
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       The Regency Romances, p.68

           Laura Kinsale
 

  She picked up her washcloth, drawing it across her cheeks. And another strange recollection came into her mind—seeing Sir Howard in a London street with a girl, her eyes puffy and red from weeping.

  Folie sucked in her breath. Her washcloth fell from her limp fingers, splashing gently into the basin.

  She had seen that girl at Solinger Abbey. Slipping the warming pan under the sheets in Folie’s bedchamber at Solinger. They had caught one another’s eye in the mirror as Folie washed her face, just as she was doing now.

  The same girl. And Robert thought she was horribly murdered.

  Mattie.

  A chill coursed through her. It was as if a ghost had materialized in the mirror. Folie turned about, her flesh rising.

  There was nothing there. But the idea of Sir Howard with that girl seized her mind. Folie liked Sir Howard; she loved his daughters and even felt an odd affection for Lady Dingley. She could not imagine that he was in league with the men who had abducted her, who had put them aboard the prison ship, who had murdered a country maid.

  And yet—she had sent that note to him, and Robert had received it.

  Slowly, Folie sank into her chair. Robert must be told what she remembered. Perhaps it meant nothing. But perhaps it meant everything. He had been suspicious of Sir Howard. She picked up her hairbrush and then sat with it in her lap, staring blindly.

  She could wait until Lander returned, and send him back with a message. Doubtless that was what Melinda would insist upon. And yet—when would that be? They had no notion what was passing in London. What if Folie knew even more than she thought? What if she had memories that seemed insignificant to her, but carried important clues? What if more recollections came as her mind grew sharper...what if she should remember how she came to be with Sir Howard at Vauxhall? She could not depend on anyone else to convey everything.

  And what if—any night, even this very night, in the midst of their absurdly shaky scheme—Robert was in grave danger, because Folie had not recognized the menacing signs in Sir Howard’s behavior?

  She lay down, pulling the bedclothes over her. But she could not sleep. She squeezed her pillow up under her head and buried her face in it. She must go to London; she could not wait for Lander to return. And yet she knew that if she announced that she was leaving, Melinda and Lander’s household staff would try to prevent her. Not that they could. If she wished to go, she could go. But then, like as not, Melinda would insist on accompanying her. Which was out of the question. Folie would not allow Melinda to place herself in the remotest danger. There would be a great scene. Folie hated scenes.

  Her thoughts went round and round in her head. She did not close her eyes all night—she heard the pendulum clock at the foot of the staircase mark every hour. And when it struck 3 a.m., she rose and lit the candle. By its wavering light, she packed a small valise, dressed as warmly as a runaway child, and sat down to write a note.

  My love,

  I must go back to town to warn Mr. Cambourne of something very significant that has come into my mind. I know you will disapprove, but I must do this directly, and depart as soon as I can. I will send you word the moment I arrive—if the Royal Mail will take me up as a passenger this morning, I shall be in London by ten A.M.

  All my love,

  Your affectionate Mama

  P.S. I am sorry about the primrose beds. The ladder is the property of a nefarious character discovered lurking in the garden last night. He is a desperate fellow, by the name of “Neddie,” but you will find that a mention of the ferret, in a suitably ominous tone, should suffice to keep him strictly within bounds. Take care, do not worry, I promise I shall return to you soon.

  She slipped into Melinda’s room and left the note propped on her washbasin, leaning over her stepdaughter to blow a butterfly kiss. Melinda would be quite wild, but Folie saw no help for it. As she let herself out of the house, the deep, thick scent of predawn, laden with damp soil and spring foliage, filled her lungs like a new perfume. The night was still fully dark, starlight and a late half-moon the only natural illumination.

  Folie felt excitement rise in her heart. She placed the ladder firmly against the wall, hiking her skirt to climb over, tossing her valise down into the churchyard. Before she jumped down, she pushed the ladder over into the ravaged primrose bed, silently promising a particular present to the gardener when she returned. She sprang down, landing and stumbling in the dewy grass.

  Folie wiped her wet gloves against her cloak, picked up her valise, and found her way out of the churchyard gate. She walked down the center of the village street and sat down on the windowsill of a greengrocer across the street from the Spread Eagle, which even at this hour had a lantern lit in the far back of the yard.

  She had left the house at a quarter to four, by the ring of the clock. And precisely on time, at half past the hour, the rumbling sound of horses and wheels became something more than her imagination. There was a quick warning blare from a coaching horn. The Royal Mail swept into town, drawing to a jingling halt outside the Spread Eagle Inn.

  Amid a bustle of hostlers, strangely silent in the night, Folie hurried up to the guard in his scarlet livery. He held up his lantern as she approached. “Can you take a passenger into London, sir? I must get there as soon as I can.”

  He looked a little surprised, but hardly astonished. “Aye, ma’am, there’s room up on the box, if you’ll ride outside.”

  “Yes, certainly.”

  “Settle with the coachman after you’re up, then,” he said, reaching for her valise. “Make haste, we’ll be off in three minutes.”

  By the dim light of the coach lamps, Folie saw that the new team was already halfway in harness. She climbed up onto the box, the coachman reaching down a hand to help her. With a handsome three-shilling tip, he seemed quite satisfied that she had unexpectedly joined his passenger list.

  A soft, expert cluck, a swish of the whip, and Folie grabbed the seat for balance as the team picked up their trot, rolling gentle thunder through the village. She could see nothing but the vague outline of the leaders, and the rumps of the gray wheelers lit by the lamps. The air passed swiftly against her cheeks. She took in a deep breath, feeling something near to happiness surge inside her as they gathered momentum, galloping through the night—carrying the mail, carrying the news—carrying her to Robert.

  He sat with Lander in the small breakfast room at the back of Cambourne House. Their caller, his neckcloth beautifully folded and impeccably white, his slender hand lifting a coffee cup with well-bred grace, would be more well-known on the inside of one of the prison hulks than the inside of any French palace, but Monsieur Belmaine had an undeniably blue-blooded air. Unless he happened to transform himself to a Scottish chemist, frowning until his eyebrows bristled as he discoursed in a fierce brogue upon the properties of base metals.

  Robert had no notion of what the man’s true name might be. But he had developed a profound respect for his chameleon tutor’s talents. When, after the morning lesson, Monsieur Belmaine transformed himself into Mr. McCann, his very cheeks seemed to grow rosy with northern winds, and it was hopeless to refer back to the French imposture—Mr. McCann would simply snort and fix Robert or Lander with an incredulous eye. “The French be damned to the De’il Himself!” he cried. “Say na’ more! M’bonny wife, ach!”

  “Your wife?” Lander inquired. Mr. McCann always spun an amusing yarn if he had a little encouragement.

  “T’were a French mahound, the bloody churl, wooed her yonder-away, so fair away!” he moaned.

  “She left you?” Lander asked, looking oddly distressed at this farrago.

  “Gone away. The world away,” Mr. McCann announced in a voice of doom. “Ye’ll not ken where to.”

  “Where?”

  “Japan.” Mr. McCann pulled out his handkerchief and blew his nose.

  “Japan!” Lander said, shocked. “Good God.”

  “It sounds an excellent place for a wife,” Robert commented. “Send ‘
em all after her, that’s what I propose.”

  Mr. McCann chuckled. “There. ‘Tis a canny lad.”

  “Oh, come,” Lander said, with a little irritation. “A man must marry. They are not all so bad.”

  “Ah. The word of experience!” Robert said.

  “Well, I have not been married, of course,” Lander admitted.

  “If you don’t need a successor—spare yourself,” Robert said pointedly.

  “Aye, take a bonny lass to keep yer bed warm,” Mr. McCann suggested, nodding. “But stay off the church porch!”

  Robert watched Lander’s reaction to this advice. The younger man smiled, but his face was a subtle study in disapproval. Robert had been practicing his lessons in observation and inference wherever he could. A man who could not take a joke about marriage was like enough to be a man deep in love.

  Robert had his opinions on who the fortunate lady might be, but he did not speak of it before Mr. McCann. The rogue might well have drawn his own conclusions in any case—there was not a thing that escaped his attention. Observation, intuition, self-control: Robert had been training in the realms of the human mind as intensely as in sleight of hand.

  If he thought he had made any progress, Mr. McCann set him back in that instant by putting his finger to his lips.

  “Careful, my lads—we’re like to offend the lady herself.”

  “The lady?” Lander asked curiously.

  But Robert had caught McCann’s faint sign toward the door. It stood closed, but Robert obeyed his teacher’s warning signal. He stood up, drawing the pistol underneath his coat, and opened the door swiftly.

  To his utter astonishment, Folie stood there, her hand poised over the knob. She stared wide-eyed down the barrel of his gun.

  NINETEEN

  “Folly!” Robert said blankly.

  She made a small curtsy. “I’m sorry,” she said, feeling suddenly and intensely stupid for coming. “I know I’m not expected.”

  In the face of his disbelief and the words she had just overheard, Folie rather wished that she might be transported to Japan with all the unwanted wives. She stood hesitantly in the doorway, hoping that at least Robert might lower the gun.

  “Mrs. Hamilton!” Lander stood up, the first to react sensibly. “Is something wrong? Why are you here?”

  “I’m sorry,” she said again. “No—nothing is wrong, nothing at the village—at least—I came at once because—’’ She glanced at the stranger. “Robert,” she said helplessly, “may I speak to you privately?’’

  “Of course.” She watched him slide the pistol under his coat as naturally as if he were a thoroughgoing highwayman. “Come.”

  Folie stood back, then followed him to the stairs. She paused at the bottom, biting her lower lip. “Robert—I did not have a full fare for the cab from the Post Office,” she said. “Someone must pay him.”

  He stopped, one foot on the lowest stair. “My dear,” he said severely, “you should never have come here. I thought you understood that.”

  Her cheeks flamed with windburn and mortification. “I must tell you something,” she said. “Something that I remembered about Vauxhall.”

  His scowl relaxed a little. “I see. Go on up, then. I’ll have Lander see to it.”

  Folie mounted the stairs slowly, feeling rather like a chastised puppy. The big drawing room was dark, the curtains still drawn. Folie went about pulling them open, letting the bright sunshine of a spring morning through. From the dust motes that sparkled down the beams, she thought the drapes had not been drawn open for the entire two weeks she had been gone.

  “Don’t!” Robert’s abrupt command startled her. “Come away from the windows,” he said sharply. “Folie, for the love of God, have you no sense at all?”

  She scooted away from the tall panes. “Is someone watching?” she asked anxiously.

  “Come here.” He moved to a position near the white marble mantelpiece, pressing his back to the wall in an odd stance. As Folie came closer, he reached out, turned her about by the shoulders and held her back against his chest. “There,” he said. “Do you see him?”

  From the strange position, she could see an angle of the street that was not visible from most of the windows. “I see a...oh, come, surely you don’t mean that child bowling his hoop? That’s only Christopher. He lives across the street.”

  “No, the donkey with the cart beside him, of course!” Robert said, squeezing her shoulders. “My dear.” She could feel him shake his head.

  “But I see no one else.”

  “In the house on the corner. That left-hand window on the first floor.”

  Folie squinted. “I can’t—” But then, as she looked, she saw that something moved in the opening—she realized that she could see right through it to the window on the farther side of the house. The light silhouetted a shape in side whenever it moved. “Goodness. What excellent eyesight you must have.”

  “Lander has a bit more resource than ordinary eyesight,” he said. His hands still rested on her shoulders. “But yes, we are watched.”

  She could feel the pistol under his coat. “Who is it?”

  “Only a succession of petty rogues so far, unfortunately—some known to Bow Street and some not. One of the higher class—’’ He dropped his hands from her shoulders, clearing his throat. “I beg your pardon, a lady of light virtue—holds the lease. Lander is having her patronage investigated.”

  “Oh,” Folie said. She moved away from him immediately, so that he should not suppose that she liked his hands upon her shoulders. “What jolly diversions you have been having here!”

  “You said that you had recalled something?”

  “Yes!” Folie turned to him. “Robert—I remembered about that note. I did write it to Sir Howard!”

  Instead of the incredulity she had expected, he watched her without expression, as if he were still waiting for her to tell him what she had discovered.

  “Robert, he must have arranged to have it delivered to you! Don’t you suppose? How else could it have gone from Limmer’s Hotel to wherever you were? I don’t even know where you were.”

  “Yes. I’ve assumed that must be the case. Did you remember any more?”

  “Well—” Folie was feeling rather flattened. “Perhaps this means nothing. But just after we arrived in London, Lady Dingley and I were returning from some calls, or shopping, I don’t remember clearly, but I believe that from the carriage, I saw Sir Howard standing on a street corner!”

  “Yes?” Robert did not seem overawed by this information.

  “But he should not have been here. In London! He had returned to Dingley Hall directly, you see! Or at least, that was what we all understood. And there he was in Bond Street, standing on the corner with a girl. I saw him. And he saw me, though I said nothing of it to Lady Dingley, of course.”

  Robert gave her a narrow glance. “A girl? Do you mean a streetwalker?’’

  “No, no—” Folie looked back at him, shocked. “I’m sure he would do nothing of that sort!”

  His mouth curved mockingly. “Perhaps not.”

  “She was dressed like a maid from the country. Her eyes were red, as if she had been weeping. I think...I believe I saw her once at Solinger, though I did not realize it at the time.”

  “Good God—you just remembered this?” He took a step toward her. “At Solinger? In the house? Are you certain?”

  She wet her lips. That stunning moment of recollection in the night, staring into her mirror, seemed distant now. “I—believe it was the same girl. I think she was a maid.”

  “You’re not sure.”

  “I am—certain. Almost certain.”

  “Did Melinda see her?’’

  “Well, I did not ask Melinda. I suppose—I should have. But she was asleep, and I wanted to warn you, in case you should be in danger.”

  He gazed at her. “Folly—you came on the morning mail? When did you leave the house?’’

  “At half past three,” she said
, lowering her face.

  “Melinda was asleep?’’ He seemed to home to her guilt instantly.

  “Well—I did not wish to wake her. I left a note.”

  His dark lashes widened. “Damn you, Folly! Damn you, do you tell me you left there without telling anyone?” He locked his arm behind his back and took a pace. “Of course you did! You would not have arrived here alone in a cab, if anyone with a grain of sense could have prevented you!”

  She sank into a chair. “I’m sorry. It came upon me so suddenly—I was worried for your safety—I did not think.”

  “You had better begin to think.” He stood still, facing away from her. She could see his fist working. “You might have sent a message, or waited for Lander—instead you put yourself in the most flagrant, unprotected situation, riding here on the bloody Royal Mail, marching up the front steps where anyone might see you! And what the devil are we to do with you now? You can’t go back.”

  She lifted her head. “I can’t go back?”

  “Certainly not! How am I to smuggle you out of here with any assurance that you won’t be followed? Lander and I are dogged wherever we go. And you cannot remain here, with no companion, in the same house with me.”

  “No. No, of course not.” With a faint horror, Folie saw instantly that he was right. She could not remain in Cambourne House unaccompanied—without Melinda or Lady Dingley, not while Robert was here. It would be impossibly unseemly.

  “I suppose none of that occurred to you in this mad rush to save my life from Dingley,” he said sarcastically.

  “I had intended that I would go back on tonight’s mail,” she offered, to prove that she had at least planned that far ahead.

  “A happy notion.” His lip curled derisively. “Doubtless we could expect to find you deported to Tasmania this time!”

  “I apologize if I did not act in an ideal manner.” She gave a stiff shrug, goaded. “But why worry? Marry me for the sake of propriety, and then banish me to Japan!”

 
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